By: Ann Harman
Not enough snow, too much rain, high winds, drought, too cold, too hot. Have you paid attention to the weather? Your bees have. Bees have just as much difficulty coping with wacky weather as we do, but in a different way. As beekeepers we need to link the weather we are and have been observing to the needs of the bees. Yes, they have ways of coping, up to a point. Sometimes that point is too many dead bees to have a viable colony, especially if Winter is approaching. It really is difficult to think of Winter on a roasting-hot sunny August “dog day.” August, known in many parts of the world for its hot, steamy days, were probably called “dog days” because the dog star, Sirius, becomes visible and follows the constellation Orion, the hunter, through the sky in the northern hemisphere.
August is the beginning of the Bee New Year. In the far northern areas of the U.S. the bees may have started Winter preparations. In the deep south and desert areas of the southwest the bees’ Winter plans have not yet begun. No matter where you live August is an important month for bees. In the temperate areas Spring brings a profusion of flowers for both pollen and nectar. Early Summer seems to provide a number of plants for bees. However, in many parts of the U.S. August can be a month for dearth of blooms – plus wacky weather, especially thunderstorms or drought.
Autumn plants in the wild, such as goldenrod and aster, do not come into bloom until after the cooler days of September and October. Other bee plants are also in bloom at that time. Suitable bee plants, except ones planted in flower gardens, can be scarce in many parts of the country during August. We tend to think of a garden around a house as being filled with blossoms and in turn being filled with visiting bees. Those carefully tended gardens do help. But stop for a minute – you tell your honey customers that it takes two million blossoms for bees to fill that one-pound jar of honey you just sold them. Does your flower garden have two million blossoms? Even if it did, is that one pound of honey enough for a colony of bees during August?
The higher the temperature, the shorter lifetime a flower has. The plant itself may continue living and even grow some stems and leaves, but the flower may only stay for a day or so, depending on the type of plant. During that bloom time the visiting bee may receive a banquet lasting for several days or merely a snack that lasts one day. Start paying attention to what the flowers are doing. Find a bee plant, call it your “target plant” and pay attention to its blossoms. Then you will understand better what your bees are receiving.
The United States has its share of weather horrors – tornadoes and hurricanes. Not everyone, everywhere will encounter those, but ferocious thunderstorms with wind and hail are more common. Bee forage and forage areas are subject to damage from any of the three. Hurricanes are East Coast problems with an official long season from June 1 through November 30. But September seems to be the peak month. Bee pasture can simply be flooded; useful trees blown down. Tornadoes demolish everything in their narrow path but the usual season of March through June is shorter than hurricane season. Even though you breathe a sigh of relief when you, and your hives, missed one of those three storms, consider that some of your bees’ favorite food sources may have been affected.
Can rain day after day after day affect our bees? Bees cannot fly in rain – if hit by one drop a bee can be tumbled. So bees stay home and eat their stored honey. But that amount of honey is also needed for raising bees and feeding the house bees. If a few days without rain occur after those endless days of rain, the nectar can be more dilute than normal and pollen may have been washed out of some blossoms. Therefore endless days of rain can be as serious as endless days without rain – a drought.
Drought can occur anytime, anywhere. You might only notice lack of rain if your garden tomato plants look a bit wilted. As you go out to water your tomatoes think about the bee forage. Nectar has a high water content. If water is lacking, nectar production will be diminished meaning much less for the bees. During prolonged drought the plants will have to curtail both their growth and production of flowers. You can obtain drought severity as well as other drought information, including maps, from www.drought.gov.
Do bees need to be fed during the Summer months? If they need it, yes! You need to be a Weather Watcher and a Plant Watcher and then look inside your hives to make certain they have enough stores of pollen and honey for survival. Keep records! Every colony has its own behavior and number of bees so do not assume all have the same food stores.
If you could have a look at a colony’s calendar you will see it has marked August as Robbing Month. A small colony with plenty of honey stored is a prime target for robbing by a strong colony, even if the strong one has plenty of food. Spilling sugar syrup in the beeyard, using entrance feeders, feeding only some colonies even with in-hive feeders all give the robbers a chance to take advantage of “fly-in fast food” honey. Guard bees will confront robbers and some fighting may be seen at the entrance. Also robbers tend to fly quickly straight in, while foraging bees seem to be slower and more deliberate in their arrival. Pay attention to action at the entrance.
You do not want to assist the robbers! Inspections late in daylight hours can help because bees are returning home when daylight is disappearing. Installing a robbing screen on each hive works very well. You can purchase a robbing screen from some equipment suppliers but you need to call it a Moving Screen to find it. If an inspection has to be done, draping an old bath towel on top of a removed hive body can help. You can purchase a Manipulation Cloth from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm.
The minute you notice robbing take action immediately. Stuffing all the entrances with grass and weeds will stop robbing. When the grass wilts the bees will shove it away. Another trick is to immediately remove all the tops off all the hives. Yes, it works! You can put the tops back on after dark. With only a few hives letting a lawn sprinkler to sprinkle the entrances sends all the bees home – they think it’s raining. You can also use entrance reducers on the hives to make it easier to be defended.
You may not be ready to requeen a weak colony but you do need to keep monitoring it. During these Summer months you just might see – ewwww! – an icky-looking white wormy thing moving across a comb. Depending on where you live this industrious whitish larva could be a wax moth larva or a small hive beetle larva. Your colony does not want either of these. But it has not had the number of bees to keep the hive safe. Now it is your task to see what you can rescue.
At first glance both the shb and wax moth larva look the same. Fortunately in books, booklets and also on the internet good photos and drawings can be found. If you Google wax moth larvae vs small hive beetle larvae you will find excellent information. One clue that you can look for are trails of webbing on the comb made by wax moth larvae. The beetle larvae do not make webbing but they will “slime” honey stores. The honey is actually fermenting so it will have an odor usually described as that of rotting oranges.
If you do not have information on each of the pests, you can obtain it easily since many states have Cooperative Extension Service bulletins available. Or you can Google eXtension small hive beetle and eXtension wax moth. These eXtension sites give information on the pests and their control.
In the meantime what can you do for that weak colony? Is there an experienced beekeeper in your local club who could help you determine the extent of damage and whether the weak colony can be salvaged? If you are a First Year Beekeeper, do you have a mentor? Both being a member of a local beekeeping club and having a mentor are extremely important to your progress in beekeeping. Although you can get a dozen different pieces of information from only eight or 10 beekeepers, the advice and help you receive are valuable. Start building your beekeeping library and reference materials. Did you take beekeeping classes? Then review your notes and any handouts.
Now just one more problem. Varroa mites. All colonies have Varroa with the possible exception of African bee colonies, but they have their own special problems. An ideal time for treatment is early to mid-July when Varroa numbers can be reaching their peak. But testing for Varroa can be done at any time. You can use the powdered sugar shake or an alcohol wash. You can make your own test kit or you can buy one. It does not matter. What does matter is that you do test and treat if necessary. The threshold of three mites per 100 bees will tell you if you should treat. Testing after treatment can tell you how effective your treatment was. In warmer climates where brood may be raised into the later Autumn months it may be wise to test for Varroa levels again.
Many treatments for Varroa are available. Select one that fits your style of beekeeping. Do it correctly. Follow instructions! The death of Varroa and the life of your bees are important. As is the purity of any honey crop you make this season. If you have selected one of the chemical treatments you must read the label for daytime temperatures and for use when honey supers are on the hive.
So during these Summer months your bees have had to face the weather (drought, severe storms), theft of their hard-earned honey stores, invasion by wax moth and small hive beetle and the viruses carried by Varroa. Is there anything else that could possibly happen? Well, a colony could decide, all by themselves, to cast a late small swarm. Why? Because they felt like it. Wave it goodbye. Something good just happened. You now have a break in the brood cycle that will help with Varroa control.